One Simple Rule for Surviving an Airline Emergency (Hint: Empty-Handed)

Fire onboard! How you exit a burning aircraft can make the difference between life and death, for you and for other passengers. Here’s one simple rule to remember.

Yesterday, a London-bound British Airways B777 caught fire during takeoff from Las Vegas airport. The takeoff was aborted and, as the plane sat smoking on the tarmac, passengers and crew used inflatable emergency slides to escape the aircraft. There were only a few injuries, all minor.

Two summers ago, Asiana flight 214 from Seoul was engulfed in flames after crash landing at San Francisco airport. Evacuation slides were deployed, and most made it to safety. But of the 307 onboard, two died and 181 were injured, some seriously.

Aside from the superficial similarities—fires, B777 aircraft—what ties the two events together is the images of passengers escaping from both emergency situations with their luggage. Once again: with their luggage. Briefcases. Rollaboards. Shoulder bags. Purses. Laptop cases.

Smoke. Fire. Frantic instructions from cabin attendants. What must have been an atmosphere of near-panic in both cases. The very real possibility of being trampled, or asphyxiated, or incinerated. In that potentially life-threatening chaos, a significant number of passengers took precious seconds to secure their belongings, in the process clogging the aisles and the emergency exits, endangering themselves and others.

What to Do

Arguably, the airlines could do a better job of preparing flyers to react responsibly to such emergencies, emphasizing in the preflight announcements the importance of exiting the aircraft quickly, unencumbered by bags.

But in the end, an orderly and safe evacuation depends on passengers themselves. It depends on us, in other words.

Most likely, in both the Las Vegas and San Francisco cases, flight attendants exhorted passengers to leave their carry-ons behind. Those instructions were widely ignored, as the pictures of bag-toting escapees clearly show. Nevertheless, compared to the potential for tragedy, the toll in death and injuries was relatively modest. But make no mistake: That was due more to good fortune than it was to responsible behavior by the affected flyers.

Next time, they—we—may not be so lucky.

Reader Reality Check

In the event of an emergency, you will exit the aircraft empty-handed, won’t you?

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By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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